How Might Minor League Reductions Affect the Cardinals?

photo: 2019 Appy League Champion Johnson City Cardinals (Johnson City Cardinals)

Looking at MLB’s proposed reductions of minor league teams and players through the aperture of the St. Louis Cardinals system. Two franchises, 65-70 players and support personnel appear to be at risk.

On Friday, October 18, Baseball America disclosed numerous details of a proposal generated by Major League Baseball (MLB) to reduce Minor League Baseball (MiLB) by 42 teams and associated players starting in 2021.

Here is my overly-simplistic summary of the motivation behind the in-depth article of over 2,500 words – reduced to two sentences.

“You want us to give minor leaguers better pay? Well, we aren’t paying extra for it!” – MLB

The ongoing issue of sub-minimum wage minor league salaries is one that MLB tried to dodge by successfully lobbying Congress for legislation to protect their labeling of players as interns or seasonal employees. This enables them to continue to not pay players for spring training and extended spring training camps, among other required time spent in their job of minor league baseball player.

However, this stance does not pass the sunshine test for many, with ongoing court cases seeking back salaries as well as increasingly negative public sentiment towards the Lords of Baseball.

The current version of the operating agreement between MLB and MiLB, the Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA), has just two years to run, with these reduction proposals to take effect in 2021.

Two Cardinals affiliates at risk?

While there could be a number of franchise-level switches across leagues not yet decided, at first blush, it appears that two Cardinals affiliates are most at risk. State College of the short-season Class-A New York-Penn League and Johnson City of the rookie-level Appalachian League could be among the 42 teams eliminated in this scenario. Not coincidentally perhaps, they are the most geographically distant from the organization’s main bases in St. Louis and Jupiter, Florida.

Chuck Greenberg, Greenberg Sports Group

Telling the fans in State College and Johnson City they can have independent ball instead of their current affiliated club (part of the proposal) should fly like a lead balloon. Team ownership and local municipalities that have invested in upgraded facilities will surely fight for reimbursement, if not for their affiliated franchise lives.

The Spikes of State College play in a modern facility, Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, shared with Penn State University. The Cardinals have been affiliated with the Spikes for eight seasons – in 2006 and from 2013 through today. In those years, State College reached the playoffs three times, winning the NYPL title twice.

State College chairman Chuck Greenberg is a former CEO of the Texas Rangers and along with the Spikes, his Greenberg Sports Group  operates Frisco of the Double-A Texas League and Myrtle Beach of the high-A Carolina League.

Randy Boyd, Boyd Sports Group

The JC Cardinals are 10-time Appy League Champions, including 2019 and five of the last 10 years. The club has set new attendance records in each of the last four seasons thanks to new leadership and facility improvements.

Though there were interruptions since, St. Louis first paired with the Tennessee city in 1939. The two have been affiliated continuously since 1975, over two decades longer than the Cardinals’ second-longest running partnership (Memphis, 1998).

Boyd Sports Group is four years into its 10-year lease to operate the Johnson City Cardinals. Tennessean Randy Boyd’s organization also runs the Double-A Tennessee Smokies, Greeneville Reds and Elizabethton Twins. The latter two clubs play in the Appy League along with the Cards, making this proposal potentially especially challenging for Boyd Sports’ operations.

How might these changes affect individuals?

On paper, shutting down two clubs could eliminate up to 70 player positions in the Cardinals organization (maximum 35-man rosters times two). But, let’s see what a run through the real data might tell us.

Background, per BA:

“MLB teams would be limited in the proposal to fielding five minor league clubs in the United States. That’s four full-season teams plus one complex-based Rookie affiliate. In addition to their 40-man roster players, each MLB team club would be limited to 150 players under minor league contracts on MiLB rosters. The proposal does not address roster limits for international players playing in the Dominican Summer League.”

Though full-season minor league teams may have no more than 25 active players, there are a handful on the injured list at any given point in time, increasing the practical total. In addition, Gulf Coast League teams, including the Cardinals complex-based squad in Jupiter, may roster as many as 35.

In other words, 150 players in a new world with five US-based teams seems about right – up to 135 active players (25 times four plus 35) plus 15 others on the shelf. But what about the others?

Let’s break down the potential impact to the Cardinals system (using detail free to all at The Cardinal Nation’s Roster Matrix.)

Overall, the Cardinals currently have 325 players under contract. Subtract 40 for the 40-man roster (which includes those with St. Louis) and 70 more for their two Dominican Summer League squads. That leaves 215 players.

In this quick view, if the MLB proposal was implemented today, 65 Cardinals minor league player jobs would be eliminated (325-40-70-150=65). That is very close to the 70 in my initial estimate above.

Of course, not all players would be given a pink slip at once. Organizations could begin to slim down earlier in preparation via periodic releases and free agency losses without corresponding additions.

Further, 15-20 fewer players would be drafted each summer, since another aspect of the proposal is to both delay and substantially shorten the annual First-Year Player Draft. In today’s Cardinals world, the majority of the recent draftees are assigned to one of the two to-be-eliminated teams, so in the new construct, fewer and later dovetails with the overall reduction plans.

In addition, two sets of Cardinals managers, pitching and hitting coaches, trainers and strength and conditioning coaches would no longer be needed – not to mention the many jobs eliminated on the minor league team staffs and their stadium support personnel. There could be a ripple effect in the local economies abandoned by affiliated ball, as well.

What is next?

These negotiations for the new PBA over the next two years appear to have become a second set of potentially game-altering changes that should be very interesting to follow. They join the MLB-MLB Players’ Association (MLBPA) talks leading toward a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, running in parallel.

One key consideration is that I do not know how much (or little?) leverage Minor League Baseball has to fight MLB’s broad proposed changes. I suspect not that much.

Further, since the MLBPA has shown zero interest to date in the minor league salary fights, I expect Tony Clark’s union to remain on the sidelines here – other than a toothless PR statement of support, perhaps.

If these proposals come to pass, I predict the lawyers will prosper most once the lawsuits start flying. As usual, baseball fans and their home cities will have no voice on their future. Same with the many – both players and support personnel – whose jobs will be lost.

Perhaps the minor leaguers who remain will be better paid, though there is no guarantee of that. Even if it comes to pass, it would be at significant cost to so many others.

As usual, MLB wins – or will their moves backfire?

In a recent in-depth article at The Athletic, Evan Drellich wrote about the economic importance of MiLB to MLB, citing ongoing research by a company run by social psychologist Rich Luker.

“I can’t overemphasize how important minor league baseball is to the whole of the (history) of baseball and the future,” Luker said. “That is what makes it approachable, and allows people to have access in ways that are affordable, and then, in fact, makes it aspirational to attend games later on in life.”

Only time will tell if MLB – which generated $10.3 billion in revenue in 2018 – risks limiting its future fan base by cutting back on Minor League Baseball to save itself money.

Important update from BA

On Saturday, October 19, Baseball America added the following note to the top of their initial article, backing off certain specifics in their initial report.

Editor’s Note: This story initially reported that the proposal would move the MLB draft back to August. Further reporting has found that while the draft in the proposal would move to after the College World Series, it would not be moved as late as August. We regret the error. Also, the number of roster spots for minor leagues would be limited to between 150 and 200 players. The story initially said teams would be limited to 150 players.

Let this be a reminder to us all that what will be decided in the end could be very different from what appears to be an initial negotiating position taken by MLB.

Update – November 17

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